Co-Creativity, As We See It: Visuals and Co-Creativity

You know it’s not going to be your average business meeting when you walk into a conference room and the first thing you notice is that several walls are covered with big, white, blank sheets of paper. The reason for the meeting could be as familiar as ever—“team/leadership building,” “product/service development,” “strategic visioning”—yet this time around, the experience will be different. It will be more inclusive, more memorable, more inspiring.

In this meeting, participants’ verbally communicated thoughts will gradually take shape on these pieces of paper in real time, which, by the end, will have become a colorful, intriguing, idea-rich series of murals. The result? Not only will everyone in the room be able to see—literally see—what one another have been thinking, they will also be able to visualize how their ideas fit together…a perfect breeding ground for co-creativity.

Connecting Words and Ideas

So, you’ve walked into this room with big pieces of paper taped to the walls and joined your colleagues who are seated around the long table in the center of the room, or on chairs in a meeting hall. Pleasantries are exchanged until the announcement that it’s time to begin. The room gets quiet.

The leader explains the reason for the meeting, and the hoped-for outcomes. Cue the visual journalist. Colored markers (and maybe a few pastels) in hand, she introduces herself as the person who will be drawing everyone’s ideas: “I am here to capture the emerging ‘big picture’ that you will be co-creating in the process of your meeting. I’ll capture a little of what’s in between the lines, and how your thoughts fit together. We’ll look at the murals together from time to time during the day, and please let me know of anything I missed!”

Once people begin to talk, she begins to draw. Perhaps the topic at hand is the company’s vision or mission statement, which takes the shape of a brilliant sun at the top of the mural—each vibrant yellow ray containing a word or phrase that represents a core ideal of the company, and each ray is streaming down from a like-colored orb labeled, “Company Vision.” The words and ideas on the mural are solely those uttered by the participants, whereas the visuals are the visual journalist’s interpretation of the connection between those words and ideas.

(We’ll check back in on this scene later on.)

Summoning the Group’s Muse

In our last blog post, we defined co-creativity as we understand it and, in this one, we’re going to delve into the importance of visuals—what we call “visual journalism”—in the cultivation of co-creativity. Since the last post, it dawned on me that although we at Visual Insight talk frequently and at great length about co-creativity, we have yet to explain why it’s a big part of our business.

Co-creativity is the central goal of Visual Insight. It is the ideal end result of muralling the ideas of a group. Or, to put it another way, we believe that the ultimate purpose of muralling a group’s ideas is to facilitate co-creativity.

Visuals are the perpetual catalyst for a co-creative environment: The more ideas there are, the more visuals there are, the more cohesiveness there is among the group, the more leading-edge thinking there is among the group, the more ideas there are, the more visuals there are…and so on. (Think “spiral growing outward and upward.”) Moreover, the muse is omnipresent in a co-creative environment, and the act of muralling can either capture or summon the muse of the group, and thus reveal the group’s collective vision.

Symbolizing Concepts

The meeting is well underway. Group members are present and engaged—leaning forward, making eye contact, nodding emphatically, feeding off of each other’s energy—while the visual journalist waves pastels and markers across the now-not-so-blank paper spread across the walls, illustrating their thoughts. You glance up at the mural…

An array of scenes are present, in close proximity to one another, each consisting of symbolic drawings accompanied by thematic quotes and phrases: Roots beneath a lush garden intertwined with the words, “Potential for Company Growth,” while the plants in the garden, budding with flowers that have yet to bear fruit, read, “New Products,” “New Talent,” or “New Strategy.” On the opposite side of the paper, a building that is under construction with a distinctly different shape than the otherwise uniform, dense metropolitan skyline in which it is located, is headed by the phrase, “Renovation Through Innovation.” Whether or not it was consciously intended, the various shapes, color schemes, and scale of the visuals are all full of meaning.

But reflection comes later. Right now, everyone is in the moment, reverberating in the eye of a collective brainstorm.

Lighting Up Ideas

Like a fingerprint or personality, each individual has his own unique muse. The effectiveness of muralling sessions, however, reveals that visuals have the power to activate the muse of each individual, or at least depict the results of each individual’s muse at work. It is a pinball game of creativity. The pinball represents inspiration, each time the ball bounces off of a bumper represents a participant’s expression of a new thought, and any time the pinball machine lights up with a congratulatory sound effect represents when a new visual is drawn. And then there’s the machine itself, which represents co-creativity. The point tally display represents innovation. Meanwhile, the collective muse is at the helm, controlling the “flippers” at the bottom of the machine and keeping the ball in play.

Imagine bright blinking lights along with a triumphant jingling sound ringing out every time an intellectual connection is realized within a group by way of muralling. So appropriate! Intellectual connections lead to inspiration, which leads to co-creativity, which ultimately leads to innovation, and thus the next big idea.

That creative connections yield inspiration illustrates that the nature of creative inspiration is receptive and inclusive. Consider this: “Inspiration” is a synonym for “inhalation.” This suggests that inspiration results from taking in something—something that Eileen refers to as the creative spirit.

Since one could dedicate a lifetime to studying and defining the source and nature of the creative spirit, as many have, I’ll only go so far as to put it in the context of the aforementioned concept of the “muse”: The muse is the channel between consciousness and creative spirit.  It is what enables one to become inspired. And it’s great for organizations.

Telling a Visual Story

The papers on the wall are now fully developed murals and the brainstorming portion of the meeting has come to a close. It is now time to reflect. The group leader announces that the visual journalist is going to explain the flow of the mural in what is known as a gallery walk.

Participants’ eyes fixate on the walls covered in art inspired by their thoughts as she begins to tell the story of the day. She walks along the multi-paneled visual journal and explains the ideas that the visuals represent, why she chose to depict them as such, and how they all contribute to the “big picture”—the overarching theme of the story of the day.

The murals reflect the tone of conversation on each topic—thoughts and emotions. For example, if participants became passionate and animated when discussing a new business direction for the company, then that dynamic is reflected in the visuals with, say, bright colors and dramatic shapes. Or, if the mural is of a heartfelt and thoughtful talk given by an individual, then key quotes of the talk can be seen interwoven with one another in a fluid, wave-like design, streaming down from a central theme shaded by warm colors.

Valuing Imagination

Up until now, we’ve stayed mostly in the artistic realm, but since we do art for the sake of bettering organizations, it’s time to look at visual journalism and co-creativity from a business-minded perspective. When we first started our visual journalism practice more than ten years ago, some business people were worried about the ROI (return on investment). It was a challenge to explain the intangible value. How do you calculate the ROI for an activity as esoteric as muralling, anyway?

Over the years, the practice proved itself by the results. After all, top leaders of organizations are often the people who attend these workday-long visualization exercises, which means that they are not at work (in the traditional sense, at least) during that time, yet still on the clock. Their time is valuable and every moment counts. Even number-crunchers began to see that muralling accelerates and deepens the conversations, making the most of everyone’s time together. The ROI conversation has been put to rest. I mean, hey, can you really put a price on discovering the next big idea?

From cognitive neuroscience to Jungian psychology, we have plenty of evidence that visuals are the interface between action and imagination, between the inner and outer worlds. They capture not only the content, but the context of communication. To repeat a brilliant quote from our colleague Bonnie DeVarco that we cited in one of our blog posts from last year, “Words capture ideas—images free them.”

The potential of visual communication to powerfully impact our consciousness, perception, and imagination is, quite literally, beyond words. The combination of symbolic images and written words in a mural act as a record of the stream of consciousness of a group—a record that both documents and stimulates imaginative thinking. Today, the field of visual communication is growing and expanding with many practitioners. And together we are fine-tuning processes that enable visuals to unlock co-creativity, the eye-opening transformation that takes place in the mind of each participant, as well as the group as a whole.

Visual Insight’s mission is to both advocate for and cultivate co-creativity in great organizations. In what we have referred to as our “ever-evolving quest” to capture the elusive and essential qualities of co-creativity, the expanding field of visual communication is supporting the new paradigm—that we need more than words to make it happen.


Co-Creativity, As We See It: Visuals and Co-Creativity

4 thoughts on “Co-Creativity, As We See It: Visuals and Co-Creativity

  • March 15, 2013 at 1:10 am

    CO-CREATIVITY. I love it!

    You’ve nailed collaboration with forward motion to make things. Maker-faire for ideas!

  • March 18, 2013 at 7:52 pm

    A great “portrait” (in words) of visual journalism in action! Nice job, Justin!

  • March 23, 2013 at 8:56 am

    As a writer who can’t draw, I particularly love your verbiage and articulation of co-creativity…the connection of visual insight is such an important part of participatory learning. I feel it takes us all to a deeper level of engagement and understanding, being part of the process, the outcome and the clarity that comes with the recorder’s interpretations/visual captures. Where ‘infographics’ have given rise to data viz; co-creativity is more germane to my collaborative work so these thought layers really help define the difference, thanks!

  • March 30, 2013 at 10:50 am

    I’m not sure anyone can understand this process without experiencing it, but this essay probably gets you close. I love the phrase “pinball game of creativity” – to me that nails the feeling of group flow that occurs when every element combines in the right way.

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